A New Iron Curtain

NATO is incautiously expanding eastward, which has thoughtful Russians worried about being fenced out of Europe—and worse

THE planned expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe has been compared by one sour critic to the behavior of a couple in a crumbling marriage, who instead of going to a marriage counselor decide to try to save their relationship by having a baby, or possibly even several babies. NATO itself is in the middle of a very confused debate about its identity and role, and partly as a result it is difficult to detect any honest, coherent discussion in the West of the necessity for expansion and of how it will affect relations with Russia, the security of Ukraine and the Baltic States, and the peaceful integration of Ukraine into Europe. A potential diplomatic debacle is in the making. Fortunately, more and more voices are being raised in the United States against this policy.

The official Western line at present is that NATO expansion is meant to "strengthen European security," but not against Russia or against feared Russian aggression. Nevertheless, a Russian official recently remarked to me on this score, "You must think we're blind and deaf." All public discussion in Poland, and much of it in the United States, on the part of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole, and others, has been conducted in terms of the need to contain a presumed Russian threat and to prevent Russia from exerting influence on its neighbors—influence that is automatically viewed as illegitimate and threatening to the West.

Western protests that NATO has completely changed its nature since 1990 are met with Russian requests to be told exactly what, then, NATO is today—a question to which NATO itself simply does not know the answer. Western diplomats are unable to say what "security" in the context of, say, Poland actually means—and therefore unable to give any intelligible response when asked how it can be strengthened by NATO expansion.

The attitude of Boris Yeltsin's government and the entire Russian political establishment to the expansion issue (after some wavering, above all on the part of Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev) is now strongly and unanimously negative, though the government hopes for the moment to continue exerting influence against expansion by cooperating with NATO—hence its agreement to join the Partnership for Peace.

The reasons for Russian opposition are twofold: In the first place, NATO expansion is seen as a betrayal of clear though implicit promises made by the West in 1990-1991, and a sign that the West regards Russia not as an ally but as a defeated enemy. Russians point out that Moscow agreed to withdraw troops from the former East Germany following unification after NATO promised not to station its troops there. Now NATO is planning to leapfrog over eastern Germany and end up 500 miles closer to Russia, in Poland. Western arguments that the 1990 promise to Mikhail Gorbachev referred only to East Germany, not to the rest of Eastern Europe, though strictly speaking correct, are not unnaturally viewed by Russians as purely jesuitical. Yeltsin's officials say that NATO expansion would lead to a reversal of the previous pro- Western policy of the Yeltsin and Gorbachev governments, with serious domestic political consequences in the form of revanchist nationalism.

In the second place, Russians fear that NATO expansion will ultimately mean the inclusion of the Baltic States and Ukraine within NATO's sphere of influence, if not in NATO itself—and thus the loss of any Russian influence over these states and the stationing of NATO troops within striking distance of the Russian heartland. Most Western diplomats privately say that these fears are paranoid, but the West's inability publicly to rule out the possible future inclusion of any country in NATO makes it very difficult to reassure the Russians.

The overwhelming majority of Russian politicians, including most liberals, now believe it is necessary that most of the former Soviet Union (excluding the Baltic States) be within a Russian sphere of influence. They see this not as imperialism but as a justifiable defense of Russian interests against a multiplicity of potential threats (radical Islam, future Turkish expansionism), of Russian populations outside Russia, and of areas in which Russia has long maintained a cultural presence—Ukraine, for example. This does not necessarily involve demands for hegemony over Russia's neighbors, but it certainly implies the exclusion of any other bloc's or superpower's military presence. In justification Russians point to the Monroe Doctrine and to the French sphere of influence in Africa. Most educated Russians now view Western criticism as mere hypocrisy masking Western aggrandizement. They point with anger to America's arming of Turkey in recent years, and to what are seen as recent attempts to expand U.S. influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, where arguments about strengthening local democracy or Western security can hardly apply.

For example, General Alexander Lebed, widely favored to win free elections for the presidency if these are held on schedule, in June of 1996, has publicly opposed the Russian military interventions in Tajikistan and Chechnya. He has also, however, spoken with extreme bitterness about NATO's expansion, even warning that this could lead to a third world war. Lebed told Reuters that NATO is behaving like "a big drunken hooligan in a kindergarten who says he will hit anyone he likes," and has said that NATO expansion into Eastern Europe would force Russia to form a new military bloc of its own and cancel treaties and military agreements with the West. He has also said, "The Cold War is over. They won, and we all agreed to this. So why have you decided to re-open the competition?"

* * *

Threatened Russian responses to NATO expansion range from an end to cooperation with the West should Poland become a member to bloodcurdling off-the-record hints of destabilization and military action should membership look likely for Ukraine and the Baltic States. In the words of Vladimir Lukin, the chairman of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee and an ally of the liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, "If NATO wants to expand to Eastern Europe, then first there must be a long process of international discussion, involving Russia, about what NATO is, and what the threats to security in the region really are and how they can be countered. But if NATO expansion were to aim at ultimate membership for the Baltic States and Ukraine, without Russia, that would be utterly unacceptable. No Russian could possibly accept the presence of a potentially hostile NATO within striking distance of Smolensk—or what were the sacrifices of the Second World War in aid of? I won't say how we should react to such a threat, because I am committed to friendship between Russia and the West. But I can tell you that the United States would find it a much more dangerous process than dropping bombs on the Bosnian Serbs."

Lukin and others have suggested that if NATO really does push forward against Russia, then Russia may have to retarget its nuclear weapons on the West, beginning with the restationing of tactical warheads in Kaliningrad. This may be the only practical way for Russia, given its military weakness, to put military pressure on the West; and if Western European populations were suddenly to find themselves once again under nuclear threat as a result of what could be portrayed as a reckless and aggressive U.S.- led policy, the result would probably be a first- class political crisis in the West, possibly destroying NATO from within. Such a likelihood is especially great in Germany, given the increasing role of the Greens in government there. It must be stressed, however, that Lukin and others speak of such a move only as the very last resort.

Lukin would probably define himself as a statist at heart, but radical Russian democrats also find NATO expansion deeply distressing, for reasons both of patriotism and of liberalism and "Westernization": excluding Russia from Europe and pushing it back toward Asia would increase Russia's "Asiatic" character in the spiritual as well as the geographical sense. By symbolically pushing Russia back to the status of Muscovy, as Russia was known before the reign of Peter the Great, NATO expansion could also deal a blow of historic importance to the whole effort, intermittent since the time of Peter, to reform Russia in a Western direction.

One normally sober, centrist, and pragmatic Russian foreign-policy adviser told me not long ago that in the event of a NATO move toward Ukraine, Russia would do its best to wreck the Ukrainian economy with an energy blockade, to rouse the Russian populations of Crimea and eastern Ukraine to revolt, and to subvert the Ukrainian armed forces, whose officer corps is still largely composed of ethnic Russians. Of course, this may well be hot air. Russia might not dare pursue such a strategy, and if it did dare, it might well discover itself to be powerless—because Ukraine today is not nearly so weak or fissiparous as it was a couple of years ago, and because most Russians in Ukraine would themselves probably resist such moves. All the same, it hardly seems rational for the West to increase the risk of such a crisis without some very pressing reasons.

The no longer current belief in the West that Russia would not oppose expansion came largely from the false impression of Russia's interests that was given by Andrei Kozyrev and the democrats in the early 1990s, an impression the West was very foolish to take at face value. We should have looked instead at Kozyrev's political insignificance in the Moscow establishment and at the way that any Russian establishment was sooner or later going to define permanent Russian national interests. Over the past eighteen months Kozyrev's tactics and statements have been largely dominated by the requirements of his own short-term political survival. (These tactics appear not to have worked; Yeltsin has been hinting that he will dismiss Kozyrev.)

* * *

NATO expansion raises two serious questions for the West, neither of which has been regularly addressed in the Western "debate" on the issue, despite the acres of newsprint devoted to the subject. The first: Is fear of Russian aggression justified? The second: Will NATO membership for Poland in particular make Russia's western neighbors, Ukraine and the Baltic States, more or less secure?

The answer to the first question is that, as every Western military attaché in Moscow with whom I have spoken agrees, a Russian military threat to Poland and Eastern Europe is for the foreseeable future inconceivable. The war in Chechnya has been squalid and brutal, but given what it has revealed about the state of the Russian army, and about most Russians' complete lack of desire to fight wars, it should actually allow us all to sleep more easily in our beds. Nor, given the transformation of the Eastern European economies and political systems, does Russia have the ability to bring serious nonmilitary pressure to bear on these states. Russia is therefore not an immediate threat to Eastern Europe—so why the urgency about NATO expansion?

This brings us to the second question, for a potential Russian threat to Ukraine and the Baltic States obviously does exist. But as a Western ambassador to Moscow recently told me he had cabled to his government, "If Kiev is more secure, then Warsaw automatically becomes more secure, but this is not true the other way round." Thus NATO membership for Poland might radically lessen Ukraine's security, because Moscow, in a pre-emptive anti- NATO measure, would greatly increase pressure on Kiev to join a Russian- dominated military alliance. Western diplomats in Kiev are worried by this possibility.

So, too, are the Ukrainians, who fear that NATO membership for Poland would leave their country clearly designated as non-European. Recently President Leonid Kuchma has put a brave face on NATO expansion, now that it seems inevitable, but the worry remains. In the words of the distinguished Ukrainian- Canadian historian Bohdan Krawchenko, who has been training civil servants in Kiev for the past two years, "NATO should be very careful over expansion. Its advocates are raising all sorts of irrelevant points, when the only serious issue to be considered is that of the security of Ukraine and the Baltic States. NATO may make a disastrous decision—to draw a new iron curtain on the eastern frontier of Poland. That would be as much as to say that Europe stops at the Visegrad countries, and the rest of you can go to hell. . . . The problem is that Western Europe doesn't know what Europe is, and hasn't even thought seriously about what Europe should look like in twenty years' time. The West should be thinking about this and drawing up long- term strategies, not making short-term political decisions. The integration of the East Europeans into the West has to be an evolutionary process. Let it continue for a while before taking any new steps."

If Russia had already begun to put ruthless pressure on Ukraine and the Baltic States, then the West might be justified in going ahead with NATO expansion regardless; but no such pressure is currently being applied. On the contrary, Moscow has actively discouraged radical Russian separatism in the Crimea, and it has withdrawn its troops from the Baltic States, subsequently exerting neither military nor economic pressure on the Balts, despite deep anger at the policies of those states toward their Russian minorities. Moscow has been tough in its negotiations with Kiev over control of the Black Sea fleet and its base at Sevastopol, but without resorting to military pressure. According to all the Western military analysts I have spoken to, there has been no redeployment whatsoever of Russian forces so as to threaten Ukraine.

Russia today is both weaker and much more cautious than most people in the West realize. There are no indications at present that the Yeltsin government or any other rational Russian government that might come into being (excluding, that is, the likes of Zhirinovsky and his adherents) would be willing to pay the immense economic and diplomatic costs of trying to bring Ukraine and the Balts to their knees. As for the Russian people, while they are certainly deeply nostalgic for the Soviet Union and great-power status, they are also deeply unwilling to sacrifice Russian lives and money to restore that status. This is shown by the widespread unpopularity of the military operations in Chechnya and Tajikistan—something that should give pause to those in the West who talk about Russians' being "naturally imperialist." The French, for example, fought infinitely harder in defense of their colonial empire, from the 1940s to the 1960s, than the Russians have done.

Apart from Chechnya and Tajikistan, Russian military pressure on the republics to submit to Russian hegemony, though often cynical and ruthless, has been exercised through local intermediaries (Abkhaz, Ossetes, Armenians, Transdniestrians), and has therefore been both veiled and limited in scope. As for the intervention in Chechnya, the whole affair has been morally vile, but this republic is, after all, internationally recognized as part of the Russian Federation, and the Russian government hesitated for more than three years before finally invading, in the face of immense provocation from DzhokarDudayev, the President of Chechnya. Western governments over the past generation or so would have shown less restraint. What has happened in Chechnya therefore does not necessarily prefigure Russian policies beyond Russia's borders—especially since Russia has gotten such a bloody nose there.

Western diplomats in Moscow generally know all this—though I detect an alarming tendency among the more opportunistic and cowardly of them to suppress this knowledge in the face of the prevailing wind blowing from their chancelleries at home, and among those chancelleries simply to ignore or censor advice from their Moscow embassies when it runs counter to the new Western consensus.

One problem is that in the West the public discussion, insofar as it exists at all, is taking place in an atmosphere of op- ed pieces highly colored by Cold War attitudes, Russophobia, ignorance of the region, fundamental indifference to the fate of the Balts and the Ukrainians, and a hypocritical refusal to set Russia's present experience in a general context of European decolonization and neo- colonialism—at which point it becomes clear that brutal defense of an existing sphere of influence does not necessarily make a country a threat to the rest of the world.

* * *

The global threat from the Soviet Union came from a mixture of that state's implacable anti- Western ideology, communism's claim to universal truth and applicability, and the immensely powerful Soviet armed forces. Russia today possesses none of these features, and Russian nationalism, while often dangerous and disgusting, poses no direct threat to anyone beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Since Russia is thus not a security threat to Eastern Europe, and most Western analysts know this, the real but unacknowledged motives for NATO expansion have to be sought elsewhere. They appear to be fourfold.

* Within the United States the reason seems to be strongly connected to electoral politics, in the desire of both the Clinton Administration and its Republican opponents to appeal to the Polish and other ethnic lobbies, and in the desire of the Administration to be seen as taking a firm, tough, "dynamic" initiative in international affairs, so as to counteract a general impression of confusion and weakness. Among the Republicans, however, the wish for a stronger U.S. stand against China and Russia coincides with a growing unwillingness to supply foreign aid to regional states or to pursue nonmilitary strategies of deterrence—an intellectually ludicrous and politically dangerous mixture, because it risks encouraging the Ukrainians, for example, to take up tougher positions vis-à-vis Moscow, only to find themselves abandoned by the United States should a crisis result.

* The Western Europeans are falling in line with this U.S. initiative above all out of fear that America will turn isolationist and withdraw from Europe—a fear strengthened by aspects of contemporary Republicanism and mutual irritations over Bosnia. In the (patronizing) words of one Western European diplomat, "We have to give the Americans some new toys to play with in NATO, because we're afraid that otherwise they may get bored and go home."

The Germans in particular have a curious mixture of attitudes: Liberal Germans are possessed by their old fear that unless Germany is anchored in NATO, and NATO is maintained by being expanded, German nationalists may be tempted once again to pursue the German Sonderweg ("separate path"). The nationalists, for their part, do see NATO expansion as a path to greater German influence in Europe, and to rolling back Russia, which they detest for having defeated and humiliated them in 1945. Both camps want a row of NATO buffer states between themselves and the unstable former Soviet Union, even at the risk of making that instability much worse. In neither case is it an ethical position.

* An additional Western European reason for agreeing to NATO expansion is an awareness of just how difficult it will be to expand the European Union, the other Western organization that the Eastern Europeans are passionately eager to join. Russia has no objections to EU expansion, because although it would clearly expand Western influence, it would also carry the possibility of major economic advantages for Russia. Thus the Russian government actually publicly welcomed Finland's entry into the EU.

But as far as the EU itself is concerned, full membership for the Eastern Europeans is the subject of an immense internal debate, at a time when Europe is nowhere near digesting or resolving the consequences of Maastricht or agreeing on its own future nature and identity. In particular, expansion to include Eastern Europe would mean a complete renegotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy—an idea that makes European officials blench. From the point of view of, say, French officials, Russian anger pales into insignificance when compared with the fury of French farmers, who can really make them suffer—or so they think. But clearly the West has to do something to honor all those promises to the Eastern Europeans—so why not expand NATO?

* Finally, there is the sheer force of bureaucratic inertia and interest politics. NATO is an immense international military-bureaucratic organization that also directly and indirectly feeds huge numbers of intellectuals, journalists, and analysts. Consciously or unconsciously, all these people have a strong interest in keeping their jobs by finding a new and continuing role for NATO; and if they can't agree on such a role, then expansion will have to serve as a substitute. The intellectually lazy and cowardly among them also find it easier to recycle Cold War images of the Russian threat than to try to make sense of a new and confusing multipolar world—in which, for example, one really ought to know some foreign languages.

All these factors together add up to immensely powerful political reasons for NATO expansion—but reasons that are utterly feeble in terms of the real interests both of the West and of Russia's neighbors.

The risk now exists that relations with Russia are about to enter an ever- faster downward spiral. In the context of the Russian parliamentary elections due at this writing to be held in December and of the presidential election scheduled for June, anti- Western rhetoric is bound to increase. The same will be true, to a lesser extent, of anti- Russian rhetoric in the United States in the period before the presidential elections. Harsh Russian statements may lead to speeded- up NATO expansion; the Russian response will then become even harsher; and so on. The potential consequences of this range from the serious to the disastrous. (If the Russian presidential elections are canceled, or if Yeltsin dies before then and there is an attempt to create some sort of dilapidated Yeltsinite autocracy, then the implications for Russian foreign policy will not be so clear.)

For the moment Western readiness to renegotiate the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty so as to accommodate Russia's new post-Soviet strategic position has helped to prevent a complete breakdown. So, too, has the fact that NATO has made it clear that the process of accepting the new members will take several years.

* * *

For the future, however, it is still the case that Russian officials and analysts threaten a general collapse of cooperation and deliberate Russian attempts to sabotage Western interests elsewhere in the world in the event of a rapid NATO expansion to Eastern Europe without some considerable compensation for Russia. For example, at present the standing orders to Russian diplomats at the United Nations are to cooperate with the West except when this is seen as clearly against Russia's interests. Those orders could be changed, and the UN returned to its position of Cold War paralysis. This might not worry those Republicans who in any case loathe the UN, but it ought to worry every Westerner who is aware of how frequently the UN has served the West's interests since 1990.

In the new, unpredictable multipolar world, and given the potential danger from China over the next few years, Western policy toward Russia should in my view be devoted to keeping options open, and keeping an eye on the West's possible future need of Russia as an ally—since Western and Russian interests still actually coincide in several vital parts of the world. This policy should be abandoned only if a Russian government demonstrates clearly aggressive intentions toward its western neighbors—which is not at present the case. And as Bohdan Krawchenko has stressed, this is no moment—just as economic reform in Ukraine is beginning to gather speed—to be risking Ukraine's progress toward the West, by drawing new borders that exclude it.

If NATO expansion is slowed to take account of Russia's objections, and if Russia tones down those objections so as not to strain its relations with the West, the reason is indeed likely to be China. Both Russian and Western policymakers are increasingly aware that it would be very foolish for either Russia or the West to allow the issue of NATO expansion in Europe to wreck the chances of future cooperation in the Far East at a time when China's future is looking so uncertain, and when so many potential Chinese threats to Far Eastern security and even territory exist.

Russian policy therefore remains to try to influence NATO by cooperating with it—hence the decision to join the Partnership for Peace. An additional reason for this policy is that although the anger of Russian diplomats over NATO behavior is unfeigned, more serious and less paranoid Russians do of course realize that NATO represents no threat of direct attack on Russia. Indeed, the Western alliance's display of weakness, cowardice, and internal divisions over Bosnia has diminished Russian fears of NATO as an organization.

There remains, therefore, a good chance that over the next few years NATO expansion, and the Russian response to it, will be finessed so as to reduce any damage to NATO- Russian relations and any threat of greater instability in the former Soviet Union. Alternatively, that expansion will be delayed until the emergence of new global issues makes the whole question seem unimportant to both Russia and the West. There is also, however, a real danger that under a new, more nationalist Russian government, and a more hard-line Republican Administration in the United States, disputes over the issue would veer out of control, with consequences that cannot be foreseen.